I organised another meeting with Natural Resources Wales (NRW) on Friday to establish the cause of water quality issues affecting the rivers Wye and Usk - and learn what we can do about it. I was told water quality has not changed within the last five years and there wasn’t a significant change prior to that. There has, however, been an increase of algae blooms. These are caused partly by a rise in temperature and low river levels, but also by phosphates.
Phosphate is an organic nutrient which naturally occurs and is put into fertiliser to increase crop growth. However, some can find its way into rivers. Current levels are too high and NRW is working with the farming industry to prevent it from flowing into our rivers. Work is also ongoing to ascertain how much phosphate is being produced by the agricultural industry and how much is being produced by other areas of society, such as housing.
Another area of concern is the introduction of pollutants into our waterways by intensive farming practices. However, research by NRW has concluded there is no evidence of a link between the two. Poultry units with over 40,000 birds are required to obtain permits from NRW and are carefully monitored whereas smaller, organic poultry farms are not subject to the same assessments. Manure from these set-ups is harder to collect as chickens are free to roam outside, while manure can be easily managed in intensive farming units because it is in a controlled space. I’m therefore told organic chicken farms are as much to blame for phosphate levels as intensive farming units. This came as a surprise to me because we are used to hearing that intensive farming is always bad and organic farming good. On this issue, the evidence does not back it up.
Storm overflows are used to manage excess water because our Victorian sewage system cannot cope with an increase in population and high rainfall. These overflows are permitted by NRW otherwise sewage would flood into our homes. An issue arises when storm overflows discharge at times when it’s not raining. It is difficult for NRW to take enforcement action for overflows which do not have a permit as homes could potentially be flooded if they were blocked off. Instead, NRW wants to regularise them and improve spill frequency. NRW said the long-term solution would be to separate waste water from sewage. But in Wales, this would cost about £8bn - over £2,500 for every resident. Studies will identify where work can be prioritised.
I’m chairing a further meeting next month with NRW and those leading the campaign to keep the Wye and Usk clean.
*Published in the Monmouthshire Beacon on 1 September 2021 and the Abergavenny Chronicle on 2 September 2021*